Making kosher cool

NEW YORK — This isn't your bubbe's matzoh ball soup.

Because when your grandmother learned the ins and outs of kosher cooking, spiking it with wasabi, drizzling it with toasted sesame oil or eating it alongside sushi was about as likely as serving it with a side of bacon.

Today, a new generation of cooks is redefining what it means to be kosher. And they're doing it thanks to an explosion of kosher ingredients and a food savvy almost unthinkable a generation ago.

"I'm so impressed by how on the mark and how with the times the kosher community is," says Susie Fishbein, author of the popular "Kosher by Design" cookbook series, which adheres to Judaism's strict dietary guidelines that call for avoiding pork and shellfish, and for separating meat and dairy.

"For such a long time we were so stuck in that genre of being in a deli — brisket, cabbage, that sort of thing," she says. "Panko bread crumbs, pomegranate molasses and mango chutney are commonplace now in kosher supermarkets."

It's a hip new approach to a very old way of eating. For generations, kosher cooking in the U.S. had a staid, grandmotherly reputation, sticking mostly with Eastern European comfort foods such as potato kugel, cheese blintzes and gefilte fish.


One can nosh mango-glazed halibut salad or turkey spring rolls at Spertus Cafe, Wolfgang Puck's kosher lunch spot in Chicago. Or stock up on homemade cheeses and organic produce at Pomegranate, a new Brooklyn grocer that's being dubbed the "kosher Whole Foods."

And cooks can be inspired by a growing stack of kosher cookbooks, including Ronnie Fein's aptly named "Hip Kosher."

"I don't know if I'm hip, but my food is," says Fein, whose book includes outside-the-box options such as a kosher Cubano sandwich, in which corned beef, turkey and soy cheese replace the more traditional ham and roasted pork.

Even sushi, once considered exotic and mostly off limits, has been reinvented for the kosher-observant. Last year's "Japanese Kosher Cooking" cookbook by Kinue Weinstein offers kosher adaptations of everything from sashimi to yakitori.

This new, more cosmopolitan look to kosher is due in part to the growing affluence and influence of American Jews, says Deborah Dash Moore, a historian and director of the University of Michigan's Frankel Center for Judaic Studies.

It also doesn't hurt that Americans as a whole are expecting more from their dinner plates.

"With TV shows like 'Top Chef' and the programs on the Food Network, people are becoming more aware of food," says Tamara Holt, food editor for the recently launched (and also very hip) Jewish Living magazine.

"That's no different for people who keep kosher," she says. "It just presents additional challenges."

And those challenges have become less daunting. A vast — and ever expanding — array of kosher foods, including nondairy milks and vegetarian sausages, makes substitutions easy.

Fishbein wrote her first "Kosher by Design" cookbook, "Picture Perfect Food for the Holidays and Every Day," in 2002 because "as someone who was Modern Orthodox and loves to entertain, I felt there wasn't a lot out there from the standpoint of beautifully photographed upscale type of (kosher) stuff you'd find in a restaurant."

Even Rachael Ray-inspired speed has come to kosher cooking. Last year, former HBO producer Jamie Geller published "Quick and Kosher," which features recipes that require fewer than 15 minutes prep.

The 30-year-old grew up on takeout, but taught herself speedy kosher cooking after becoming Orthodox and getting married. "Anything that's worth doing the long, hard way, I'll eat at someone else's house," she says.

Geller even stars in an online cooking show, "Simply Kosher," featured on the Orthodox Union Web site. There she makes quick versions of kosher staples such as gefilte fish, as well as more sophisticated dishes, such as seared tuna.

And Geller isn't alone in bringing new kosher cooking to the screen.

Jeff Nathan is a stocky, 50-year-old kosher chef who likes to gesticulate while using words like "schmear." He seems too much a cliche to be a forerunner of a hip new culinary movement.

Yet that's the role Nathan — who owns upscale Manhattan eatery Abigael's and stars in public television's "New Jewish Cuisine" cooking show — has found himself in.

His isn't a household name in the U.S., where his show no longer is in production. But in Israel, where it airs twice a day, "I'm treated like Brad Pitt," he says with a laugh.

And at Abigael's, kosher cooking gets similar star treatment, with dishes such as macadamia crusted chicken, barbecue cedar plank salmon and Thai sea bass.

"Jewish consumers' palates have changed, and there are more products now available in my painter's palette, there's more I can do," Nathan says. "I love it!"

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